The Mystics and the “Middles” of Life

By Joe LaGuardia

I attend a Baptist pastor’s meeting every so often in which we have a time of prayer, as well as listen to a one-hour presentation from a guest speaker.  There is always a speaker, and although it is meaningful, we are never left to talk among ourselves—to share, to compare notes, to engage one another, or wrestle with things that are happening in our community.  It is always someone from the outside, some church planter, consultant, or church leader.

Every leader sounds the same: to persuade us to take on new ideas, fresh starts, new programs all designed grow the church, make ministry effective, be relevant, increase giving and tithing, bring revival, save the lost, be true to doctrine, and on and on it goes.

No one ever addresses how to do what I call “The Middle”—that long expanse of ministry in which you are pursuing an idea or program that you were excited about starting a while ago.  No one ever addresses on finishing well either.  We like beginning new things, starting new ministries, buying new things, and getting fresh ideas; but where do we find encouragement just to do what we are doing, stick with things, and bring certain seasons to an end in a way that celebrates the meaning of that season in the first place?

For those of us familiar with the Christian Calendar, we know that “middles” are just as much a part of our walk with Christ as are the beginnings of things (like Christmas) or the end of things (like funerals).  The “middle” is what we observe in the church season known as “Ordinary time,” which goes from Pentecost to Advent. It is the longest season of the church calendar, and sometimes Ordinary Time seems to go on forever.  People get bored, we get anxious; we wonder if this whole thing is a waste of time!

The fact of the matter is that our society has capitalized on beginnings, new things, change, and convincing people that boredom and unrest can be met only with the newest craze, fad, or gadget.  No one knows how to live in the “middle” anymore—to work, eat, sleep, care for family, play with kids, go to church; and to do that over and over and over again.

For me, none other than (and most ironically) the Mystics from the Middle Ages are what have helped me get through my middles and Ordinary Times.

The Middle Ages were a time of great change in Europe, so there were many new things erupting in towns all over the known world.  Universities met the needs of the increasingly curious and ever-growing population of the merchant, “Middle” class.  Monasticism promised an escape from the world, harkening opulent and flamboyant Catholic Churches back to simpler times.  A new movement of mysticism exposed the notion that all this new wealth and learning and concentration of resources were not an end-all of things.

Several mystics marked the 13th and 14th centuries with writings, guidance, and spiritual direction that reminded people that “boring” can be just as spiritual as “the new,” that God works just as much in the mundane routine of life as God does in the “urgent.”

Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, reformed his monastery by returning to the simplicity of Benedict’s Rule of Life.  He claimed that our hope is not always found elsewhere, say, in the bliss of heaven, but in creation as well—his writings focus on the incarnation of Christ.  Jesus saw it fit to become flesh and blood like us, so there is value in this life, value in our ability to love God and others.

Hildegard of Bingen was a renaissance woman of sorts whose art, music, teaching, preaching, and prophetic witness sought to marry spiritual ecstasy with creativity rooted in earth, rules and routine.  For all practical purposes, she was the West’s first female naturalist—she was able to pay attention to the little things rather than be swept away by the shiny big things that captivated one too many hearts.

Julian of Norwich was also a romantic.  Her writings show a deep spiritual love for Christ grounded in the mundane routine of living, of loving passionately, and of seeking Jesus’ face for the sake of obeying Christ.  She suffered from ailments that became for her sources of spiritual growth.

All of these mystics teach us what Marilyn Robinson calls the “inexhaustible ordinary.”  It has been my passion to teach my congregations this truth: That if you are always looking for excitement at church, or a new program to jumpstart your faith, or the newest purchase to fill that restless hole in your heart, then you are missing the point of Christian discipleship.  It was Augustine who told us that our hearts are restless until it rests in Christ.  But the key word there is to rest—to Sabbath, to enjoy, and to see routines and daily habits as that gift that God gives us to live with intentional purpose and blessing and peace.

Take with you five values that the mystics taught us along the way:

  1. The mystics valued the incarnation of Christ: Make Christ the Lord of your routine (read Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, if you haven’t already!). In Old Paths, New Power, Daniel Henderson points out that Jesus did not pray as a part of his ministry, he ministered out of a life of prayer.
  2. The mystics valued incarnational ministry: Become a naturalist and develop a sense of interiority that grows outward and beyond you—honing the ability to grow in awareness, empathy, observation, attentiveness (a new(!) book by Samuel Wells, Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church, addresses this.)
  3. The mystics valued the rhythms of life. Celebrate blessings; accept crises of faith as gifts.  Ministry brings times of joy as well as hardship; do not avoid them, but treat them as potential opportunities to grow in Christ even when others around you fail to grow.
  4. The mystics valued the naming of experiences, even if it meant making up images, words, phrases to best express them (like Julian of Norwich, who coined the curious moniker,  “Mother Christ”). Learn how to articulate your personal experiences of Christ, and offer that gift to help others describe the movements of the Spirit in their life.  Read often to emulate how to wield language and construct alternative narratives whereby others can live.
  5. The mystics valued routine: Incorporate a Rule of Life. It’s healthy, it puts feet to your faith, and it promotes self-care.
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A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Benedictions and Farewells

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.  This article concludes the series.

Benedictions are important in every Order of Worship.  Whether tied to a traditional or contemporary service, the last words that a pastor or music leader says to her congregation or the final words that a congregation sings together is often remembered long after the words of the sermon fades.

For some pastors, the benediction is a blessing–a final word echoing the blessings of the Bible like those from St. Paul for the churches to whom he wrote, or the one that God commanded Moses to say to the people of Israel:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you…
And give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-27).

For others, the benediction is a charge or commission to empower people for the week ahead.  Reminiscent of the Lord’s “Great Commission” in his blessing to the disciples in Matthew 28, this type of benediction serves to inspire confidence that God is active in the world.  It is a final reminder that the real work of the church happens beyond the church campus where people spend a majority of their time.

For many of us pastors, the benediction is a little bit of both: We bless our churches with a word of peace, but we also encourage each parishioner to see that they too are agents of blessing and peace for others.  We hope that in blessing and charging our congregation, people will live for Christ, represent Christ, and put faith into action–that they may live the Gospel, not merely believe in it.

Benedictions are often coupled with benediction hymns.  One such hymn is a classic in Baptist life- Blest Be the Tie That Binds.  I guess it is a Baptist classic precisely because a Baptist minister wrote it.

In the mid-1700s, John Fawcett served a poor congregation in Wainsgate, England.  He was offered a job at a larger, more affluent church but was grieved to leave Wainsgate.  He declined the offer and, instead, stayed with that little church until his death in 1811.

Legend has it that it was in the throes of indecision and anxiety over leaving Wainsgate Baptist that Reverend Fawcett wrote this brief hymn.  It expresses charity and unity of the Body of Christ, the power of prayer and intercession, of mutual encouragement — even unto “sympathizing” tears — and includes the hope that believers will come together whether in this life or the next.

The song balances the longing we have of sharing time with our church family, as well as the call to bear the burdens of others in the world.  All of this, of course, is to take place in the posture of blessing and “kindred minds,” a clarion call for any benediction hymn worth its salt.

Another favorite benediction hymn is the concise “Christian goodbye”* hymn, God Be With You, by Congregational pastor Jeremiah Rankin.  The song was first sung in Washington D.C., making it a perfect chorus to conclude worship, as well as a treasure born in the heart of a nation still healing from Civil War.

The words speak of Old Testament images of a Shepherd-God who provides, secures, protects, and guides.  It is a perfect addendum to Psalm 23 or the Exodus story, in which the provision of God’s promises and blessings to Israel take center stage.

A last type of benediction hymn is that which challenges and commissions.  A contemporary hymn by Ken Medema, penned in 2003, Let Truth and Mercy Find Here*, charges the church with putting feet to faith.  It is not enough for people to meet at church–they must transform that time of fellowship into friendship and push the bounds of justice beyond brick and mortar.

The last verse is particularly challenging:

So now let peace and justice be never far apart,
but flowing like a river for every thirsty heart.
These two shall be united, a mighty moving stream,
Upon whose bands we gather to work and pray and dream.

Set to the tune of AURELIA, the words may be foreign but the tune familiar.

That is what benedictions are, after all–familiar.  They are the earworms that stick with people, the melodies that carry us into a new week, and the words that ring over and over again for a people who are defined not always by their diversity, but their unity in spite of it.

 

*William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976): 72.
*Let Truth and Mercy Find Here
is hymn # 692 in the Celebrating Grace hymnal published by Celebrating Grace, Inc., Macon, GA.

 

The Pastor’s 2018 Reading List

By Joe LaGuardia

There seems to be something arrogant about entitling a blog “The Pastor’s Reading List.”  I don’t know if it sounds haughty or elitist or what, but something does not seem right.  Yet, in the spirit of years gone by, I feel compelled to publish my reading list for this upcoming year.

It is not that I think more highly of myself for reading; nor is it that I feel a need to publish the list.  Rather, the list is a result of what I like to read about others.  Like so many others who read “reading lists” around the New Year’s season, I love reading…reading lists…too.  Besides, instructors on writing tell us to write what we love, so here goes.

1.  Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich and translated by Fr. John-Julian, OJN.  As a spiritual formation doctoral student some years ago, I made it my life’s work to dabble in mystics and spiritual fathers and mothers of old.  But, as so many other doctoral candidates know, it is hard to read primary sources when so much tertiary research is needed to get through the slog of writing.

One such source lost to me included the writings of the fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich.  Julian’s Revelations (the first English book written by a woman) record her visions and experiences as she served God in her commune in Norwich, England.

More poetic than prose, this book requires a slow reading–more of a prayerful meandering through the mind and heart of one of the most beloved women in all church history.  I started reading this book when I purchased it on a recent trip to Georgia three weeks, and it is proving to be more devotional than anything else.  Nevertheless, the Abbess abides.

2.  Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview, by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew.  There are books I want to read and books I have to read.  This falls in the “have to” column, but for a great reason: My alma mater, Palm Beach Atlantic University, finally picked me up as an adjunct instructor for an abbreviated Spring season. My class is Christian Values and Biblical Faith, a required course for all graduating students.  This is our primary textbook.  It does not look so bad, and I look forward to gleaning new things about worldviews since the book I used for the class over 15 years ago (which I did not assign to my upcoming class!) was terrible.

3.  Dragon Teeth, by Michael Crighton. People familiar with my reading habits know that I always throw in what I call “junk novels”– those escapist books that get me out of the religion bubble, ranging from horror to science fiction.  Last year it was Ghost Story by Peter Straub. This year, it is Michael Crighton’s posthumous published book from the Jurassic Park universe.

The truth is that I cut my teeth (no pun intended) on Crighton’s books in high school.  I watched Jurassic Park on the big screen, read the novel, loved the novel, and then checked out every Crighton book available through my high school library.  I thoroughly enjoy his books (I re-read Jurassic Park two years ago, and Boy! was it good!), and I am glad for this gift from Crighton’s file cabinets and family estate from whence the manuscript came.

4.  Men at Work, by George Will.  Yes, the George Will–conservative columnist, economist, and hero for Republicans who can’t stand Trump–wrote one of the classic books on the history and business of baseball.  Many who read Will (myself included) know not only of his politics, but of his genius related to the sport that he and I love.

I am looking forward to joining him on this “behind the scenes” journey of America’s national pastime.  I also hope that it will prepare me for my family vacation (and first visit) to Cooperstown, New York, and the baseball hall of fame this summer.  (Last year, to get started, I read Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, which was pretty good too.)

5.  Incarnational Ministry: Being With the Church, by Samuel Wells.  I enjoy the writings of Samuel Wells as I am an avid reader of his columns published in The Christian Century.  This book, advertised in said magazine, caught my attention because I have been praying about some annual goals for my ministry at First Baptist Church.

One goal is to help the church be the church to others–in the neighborhood, in the community, across the globe.  Many in the congregation do not have to do anything differently, as if being busier will do the trick, and there is a culture of service and missions in the church already.  It is just that we need to help the congregation see their work and service as a particularly sacred vocation in which service is more than lending a helping hand, but being the very face and presence of Christ for those who need the marriage of love and justice in their midst: disciples tasked with making disciples.  I hope this book will provide the grammar and biblical infrastructure for this goal in my ministry.

6.  Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.  Another junk novel that I hope will provide some light “summer” reading.  A novel set during the First World War by one of my favorite authors, I hope this novel will bring me to new destinations that provide a backdrop of one of my favorite historical eras in American history.  Also, it is helpful to freshen up on my Hemingway-esque prose, since I have sought so very hard to model my writing style after his own.  (It is near impossible, mind you, but I try.)

7.  Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman, by Merle Miller.  My mother purchased this book for me at a yard sale some years back, and it has been sitting on the bottom of my “to read” pile for far too long.  Since I take on a lengthy history, often surrounding presidents, every year (last year it was Florida history with The Everglades by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas), I figured, “Hey, its 2018, why not?”  I figure that it will be good to get back to some good ole’ days when presidents presided and the nation worked a little more harmoniously than now anyway.

8.  Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, by John Dominic Crossan.  I remember the first time I saw Dr. Crossan speak in person. I was with my beloved New Testament professor, the late Dr. Daniel Goodman, at a Society for Biblical Literature conference.  Dr. Crossan came out of some back room and walked towards the dais when Dr. Goodman, like a giddy child, slapped me on the shoulder, smiled that huge smile of his, and said, “Hot dog, LaGuardia!  Look at that! It’s John Dominic Crossan!” (And, yes, he did say, “Hot dog, LaGuardia!”)

Although I don’t agree with all of Crossan’s assessments on the historical Jesus, his writing and lectures have provided endless, fresh insights into the cultural world of Christ.  His acute attention to the literary aspects of Jesus’ ministry mirrors my own, and his knowledge of primitive sociology highlights context that other scholars fail to engage.

Jesus is actually a classic, published some years ago, but I never got around to reading it– I was too busy reading his In Parables over and over again.  But now I finally have the book in hand thanks to a local used book store and, I hope, the time.

9.  To Dance with the White Dog, by Terry Kay.  Terry Kay was an author that a parishioner from my last church recommended.  Kay, a local Georgia author, lectured throughout the state and was a common visitor to the writer’s guild thereabouts in east Atlanta.

My parishioner let me borrow one of his books, The Year the Lights Came On, and I was sold.  The book was amazing, and Kay’s whimsical writing and southern humor captivated my imagination and my heart.  To Dance with the White Dog is actually the book for which Kay is best known, and I look forward to reading it with delight and anticipation.

10.  Forebearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, by James Calvin Davis.  To be honest, I am not quite sure what this book is about other than what the title and the summary on the back says.  Davis argues that his contribution is a “theological ethic” whereby churches and Christians from various backgrounds are called to “bear with each other” as a way to build community.  It is an “antidote to the pervasive divisiveness present in contemporary culture.”  That’s a high and lofty calling; we will see if Davis can match those expectations.

11.  Holy Envy, by Barbara Brown Taylor.  I learned of this forthcoming book only this evening when I stumbled upon a colleague’s 2018 reading list.  I am usually up on all and anything that Brown writes, as she is my favorite author. Of. All. Time.  So when I learned of this book hitting bookshelves in August of 2018, I knew that I have to get it.

I can’t wait, but perhaps the book’s release date is divine timing: God knows that if it were to be published now, I would neglect my preparation for that adjunct class at PBAU.  God knows how to handle these things in God’s time, so I plan to keep my entire month of August free from all reading commitments until I obtain and read through Brown’s next treasure.

12. and 13.  Rounding out my list are two memoirs that I picked up along the way, one old and one new.  The first is Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, by Maya Angelou and the second is Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism, by David Gushee.  Maya Angelou is among my favorite authors, and her words–very much like Barbara Brown Taylor’s– drips with intimacy and elegance.  This memoir is a collection of wisdom that she passes down to readers, complete with her unique whit and ability to weave words into deep wells of insight.

Still Christian is a memoir not for the faint of heart.  This book, which recalls Gushee’s long journey from Southern Baptist pastor to marginalized ethicist, rings true for far too many of us who are in the throes of ministry and Baptist life.  Reading his early conversion experience and call to ministry (I’m up to page 26 already) is like reading my own, and I feel that Gushee is writing for many of us who fear losing our voice in a fractured, partisan society.

Yet, there is a relationship here.  I had David Gushee for several doctoral classes, and I have come to admire and respect him as author, ethicist, and deeply committed Christian father and husband.  His book on marriage helped me save my own, and his humble and penetrating openness to the Spirit of God has inspired so many students and ministers who work in the public square.  I feel as if reading this book is not so much reading a book as it is reading a personal letter from a friend.  Along with Angelou’s writing, its good stuff, ya’ll.

There you have it: the lucky thirteen books I hope to tackle this year. Based on my efforts in the last two years, however, I will probably get through seven or eight before I buy and read a dozen more.  Then there are the books–as yet unknown–that will be assigned to me by my Baptist peer learning group each month.  But that’s how these things work. There is the hope; then there is the reality.

Nevertheless, what do you hope to read this year?  And what “reading list” catches your attention?